School District Working to Improve Student Attendance

Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid is working to stem the district’s truancy issue by creating seven “community outreach facilitators” – what were once known as truancy officers.

“It does impact the school,” Heid said. “Because if students aren’t in attendance, they can’t learn. That’s it.”

According to PCPS statistics, more than 51,000 students missed 10 days or more in the last school year — almost half the student population, which was 110,000 last year. These absences do not reflect COVID quarantine numbers.

Heid said during a School Board work session in May that school social workers and guidance counselors are already overwhelmed with work and were having a difficult time dealing with truant students with the intensity it requires.

“The greater issue right now is what are the issues that are preventing students from attending school and what can we best do to address them?” Heid said. “And right now, as we’re seeing more and more students struggling with mental health and anxiety, and those things … You can blame it on COVID, you can blame it on other issues, but at the end of the day, our current structure did not adequately address this issue. … And so at some point, something has to give and at some point, truancy becomes the give because this requires in-person conversation.”

Heid and Brett Butler, senior director of discipline for the school district, said the community outreach facilitators started over the summer contacting the district’s “high-fliers”:

  • 425 students who attended 90 days or fewer in the last school year – 50% of the school year
  • 178 students who attended 72 or fewer days — 40%
  • 72 students who attended 54 or fewer days — 30%
  • 27 students who attended 36 or fewer days —  20%
Frederick Heid

“They need to start making a connection with the household to say your kid has to be in school — here’s their grades, here’s discipline, here’s all these other things. How do we help you? What are the issues?” Heid said. “Some of these kids, I’m going to be honest with you, are staying home because there’s no one else to take care of a sick smaller child and so the older child becomes the option for a family to take care of that so the parent can go back to work. So we have to create opportunities there and start to identify what are the leading causes that are creating opportunity for kids not to attend school and how do we best address those.”

Heid also acknowledged that some students deal with homeless issues, either living in motels or staying with friends or relatives. 

Of the 425 students who were in school only half of the 180-day school year, 29 were kindergarteners and 22 were first graders. Middle-schoolers seemed to struggle the most, with 36 sixth and seventh-graders, and 69 eighth-graders missing 50% of the school year.

“The only thing that shocked me when I saw this data was kindergarten. When I saw it was 29 — that really took me aback,” Butler said. “There is a direct correlation between student attendance and academic outcomes.”  

Each of the seven community outreach facilitators — all hired in the last few months — is expected to conduct between 25 and 30 in-person visits per week, or up to 6,300 visits per school year among all seven, and make 15 to 20 phone calls per day, or 94,500 phone calls per school year.

“That’s a lot, but it’s also doable when this person’s only job is attendance — they will be checking on attendance daily,” Butler said. “They will act as that liaison between the school and families to address any of the reasons, whether it’s getting them involved with the social worker, getting them involved with the hospital homebound or HEARTH (homelessness) project, any of those services that we offer within our district or within our community. Those liaisons would be basically pairing them up and then continuing to check up on them to see if those needs are met.”

The district employs 27 social workers, seven of whom will work solely on truancy issues. School Board member Lisa Miller asked about the high school students who are so far behind that they feel like dropping out. Out of the high school students who missed more than 50% of the last school year:

  • 45 were 9th graders
  • 38 were 10th graders
  • 36 were 11th graders
  • 36 were 12th graders

“There’s an issue with 16-year-olds … who said, ‘I’m 16 — do I still need to go?’” Miller asked. Can you talk about that?  I’ve heard at 16, you know, where they can technically quit, that there’s less involvement with that age, which I think would be the most involvement because they’re about to be adults. Can you talk about what ‘age 16’ means to those in this?”

“There’s still compulsory attendance for all students under the age of 18,” Heid said. “The parent has to withdraw the student. The student cannot initiate that process independent of their parent.”

Butler added that they are encouraging those students to look into the district’s Fresh Start program or others that would help them get their diplomas in a non-traditonal way that allows them to attend class on non-traditional schedules.

“We are not going to be encouraging, ‘Oh because they’re 16 or 17 leave them off the list to go back,’” Butler said.

School Board member Sarah Fortney, a science teacher for 33 years, wanted to know how make-up work would be handled for these students.

“These are the same kids that end up getting the packets to pass at the end of the year and then you talked about what the diploma looks like — was it earned?” Fortney said.

Heid said Fortney brought up a valid point and added the district is working under an “antiquated methodology” that might need to be revamped for students not wanting to attend college, but instead who want to work in a trade.

“There are some kids — even these kids — who are struggling over age and credit deficient that if they were put in an environment where they could actually demonstrate that they have attained the learning without having to jump through the hoops, you’d be surprised at how quickly the students will reengage in school,” Heid said. “How do we accelerate a process where students enter into the trade group with some workarounds there?”

Heid also wanted to point out to school administrators and those who track attendance that these new positions in now way absolve them, of being responsible for attendance records.

“I want to be very clear — this is not supplanting their responsibility for this in any way,” Heid said. “This person is going to be the boots on the ground doing the home visits and following up. But school-based staff are still going to have to track and monitor to report back.”

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.